Sunday, 26 April 2009

Discovering Ethics III: Basic Questions 2 (Pinckaers 1995)

Continuing my analysis of Pinckaers' book (earlier entries here), some further basic questions regarding the relationship between ethics and a number of fundamental issues intrinsic to human existence:

3. Life's meaning and goal. Pinckaers quotes the pioneering Austrian psychiatrist, Alfred Adler, as saying "The psychic life of man is determined by his goal." St. Thomas taught that happiness is our ultimate end, but later moralists dismissed this idea of Man's ultimate end as "too speculative" in favour of "the study of individual actions in relation to law, the study of cases of conscience". But this misses the point that finality is essential to human existence.

Since the question of life's goal or ultimate end is so important, we might define Christian ethics as the science that teaches us the meaning of life. It shows the supreme end toward which all our actions should be directed, the end that gives them meaning, value, and wholeness. Within this perspective, the work of the ethicist and the priest will be to help every Christian, indeed all whose lives they touch, to respond personally to the question of the real meaning of life. Their task will be to point out the highest good in the light of the Gospel and to show how all lesser goods can lead to it.
4. Suffering. Pinckaers observes that "the manuals of moral theology have little to say about suffering", choosing instead to refer this matter to treatises on asceticism. But as he points out further, both Scripture and human experience shows the centrality of suffering in human existence. The life of Christ and His disciples is steeped in suffering. The theme is prominent in the Psalms and in Job. Even on a relatively mundane level, suffering leads Man to appreciate good. According to Pinckaers, the failure of ethicists to deal with this concept is another result of the over-emphasis on obligations: "once the idea of obligation becomes dominant and determines the scope of morality, the consideration of suffering becomes marginal, since it is not a matter of obligation," and continues, "On the other hand, if the idea of happiness is the initial consideration in moral theology, the place of suffering will be obvious, for it is precisely the reverse of happiness. Suffering will then be an element of moral theology from the start." The concept of suffering is prominent in St. Thomas, too, and closely tied up with the virtue of courage, Christian martyrdom, and the Passion of Christ.

Pinckaers believes that the separation of ethics and suffering is the product of a rationalistic mindset, according to which reason and will occupy the paramount position in the moral life of the individual, while love and suffering are secondary concepts. On an even lower level is to be found the (largely irrational) sentiments, which must be dominated by reason. But, says Pinckaers,

In setting up this dichotomy between reason and appetite, rationalism misunderstands the existence of what might be termed spiritual sensibility... [which] is associated with direct perception - a kind of instinct or connatural knowledge - and with the unique movement of selfless love which is the love of friendship... And delightedly [St. Thomas] called the gifts of the Holy Spirit "instincts of the Holy Spirit" in both intellect and will.
Instead, Pinckaers, here as always, calls for a more integrative approach which can also effectively take in the question of death which is so prominent in our society.

I can't determine whether his assertion that the separation of ethics and asceticism is due to rationalism is correct, or whether this separation necessarily implies that one is superior to the other. I might seem reasonable to separate the two for investigative purposes. But the integrative approach called for by Pinckaers certainly seems to promise a more rounded view of human existence and the role of ethics in it.

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